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Wheldon victim of racing’s harsh reality

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Dave von Falkenstein
October 19, 2011

I watch a sport in which the athletes competing can possibly die. Itís just something that comes with the territory, as normal as broken bones for a football player or broken teeth for a hockey player. The biggest difference is like Neil Young once famously sang, ďOnce youíre gone, you canít come back.Ē


Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and 2005 IndyCar champion Dan Wheldon knew this, as do all race car drivers, whether itís Formula 1, NASCAR, IndyCar, or myriad of other racing series around the world. The only exception is that Wheldon is gone and wonít be back.


The IndyCar series finale, held Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, was supposed to be a celebration. The championship battle was going to be decided between Dario Franchitti and Will Power. It was to be the last race with the current generation of IndyCars, as next year will see new cars and a return to turbo-charged engines with additional engine manufacturers.


The race had been touted for both its championship implications and a $5 million bonus for any non-IndyCar regulars who could compete and win. Announced in February, IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard had hoped to rope in some NASCAR regulars as well as any other high-profile racers who fit the bill. However, with the NASCAR season winding down, nobody from that series was willing to make the trip to Las Vegas to participate.


Wheldon, who had been without a ride since winning the Indy 500 in May, was chosen to compete for the $5 million bonus. The catch was that he would start from the back of the field. If he were to win, the prize money would be split between Wheldon and one lucky fan.


In a cruel twist of fate, it was reported Friday that Wheldon would be making a full-time return to the series in 2012, signing with Andretti Autosport to take over the seat that will be vacated by Danica Patrick as she heads for NASCAR. Wheldon drove for Andrettiís team when he won the Indy 500 and the series championship in 2005.


As practice began Friday, speeds at the 1 1/2-mile, 20-degree banked oval reached over 225 mph. With 34 cars entered, the race promised to be an exhilarating final race for the season. Some drivers had expressed concern over the speeds and number of drivers in the field who lacked the necessary experience to compete at such high speeds and at such close quarters.


It turns out the drivers had reason to be wary of the speeds. Just 12 laps into the race, a massive 15-car pileup turned some cars into flaming airplanes, smashing into each other, the wall, and most dangerously, the catch fence, which is designed to keep cars and debris inside the track.


Among those involved in the mayhem were championship contender Power, as well as J.R. Hildebrand, who famously crashed on the last lap of this yearís Indy 500, giving the victory to Wheldon.


Wheldonís car was one that went airborne and smashed into the catch fence. It was that impact that caused the critical injuries, which led to Wheldon being airlifted from the track to University Medical Centre, where he died of head injuries.


The race, having been red-flagged while the track was cleaned up, the catch fence repaired, and gouges in the track surface patched, eventually was canceled. Instead, the remaining drivers took to the track for five parade laps to honor their late friend and colleague.


The tragedy in this yearís season finale eerily mirrors the 1999 CART season finale race in Fontana, Calif. In that race, Canadian Greg Moore was killed in a violent crash on lap 10.


Franchitti was in the title hunt that year as well, though he lost it on a tiebreaker to Juan Montoya after that race. Much worse, he also lost one of his best friends in Moore.


Wheldonís death is the fourth in the IndyCar series since its inception in 1996. The last fatality in the series came in 2006, when rookie Paul Dana died during a morning practice crash in Homestead, Fla. Ironically, Wheldon went on to win that race.


Racing is a dangerous sport, open-wheel racing like IndyCar even more so. The drivers know that, their families know that, and the fans know that. No racing fan enjoys this part of the sport, but unfortunately itís sometimes unavoidable. The danger and speed are two of the draws of racing and make winning all the more exciting.


If IndyCar continues to race at tracks similar to Las Vegas Motor Speedway without making changes to the cars, this wonít be the last fatality we see. Iím confident that the series will look at what can be done to be able to race at venues such as Las Vegas without putting the driversí lives in more danger than is necessary.


Sadly, for one of IndyCarís most electric stars, the race is over. Besides being a heck of a racecar driver, Wheldon also will be remembered for his magnetic and charming personality.


As newly crowned 2011 IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti said on Sunday, ďEverybody in IndyCar considered Dan a friend.Ē



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